The Federal Opposition has launched a new attempt to interfere with Territory business. This time, the ACT’s drug decriminalisation legislation is in its sights.
Liberal Senator Michaelia Cash today (14 September) tabled a private senator’s bill titled the Australian Capital Territory Dangerous Drugs Bill 2023.
Her bill’s purpose is to modify the Territory’s Drugs of Dependence (Personal Use) Amendment Act 2022 so that it “has no force or effect as a law of the Australian Capital Territory, except as regards the lawfulness or validity of anything done in accordance with that Act before the commencement of this Act”.
Ms Cash’s explanatory memorandum stated that her bill acts in the interests of Canberra’s “families, police, pharmacists and the general community” to keep the status quo of how illicit substances are currently treated in the Territory.
This would mean that the existing offence provisions from the Drugs of Dependence Act 1989 would continue to apply, with no differentiation in offences based on whether a person has a “small quantity” of a drug.
It would eliminate the drug offence notice for possession of substances such as heroin and meth and keep the current penalties available to the courts.
“The bill will be entirely prospective and will not affect the validity of anything done prior to its commencement,” the explanatory memorandum stated.
“This bill does not modify the ACT Legislative Assembly’s powers or otherwise affect the Australian Capital Territory Self-Government Act 1989 (Cth).”
It’s expected the bill will be debated during the October sitting of the Federal Parliament.
It comes a day after Senator Matt Canavan’s bill to force an inquiry into the Territory’s acquisition of North Canberra Hospital was defeated.
Senator Cash’s motion has outraged the ACT Government. Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith labelled the notion that it won’t interfere with the ACT’s self-governance as “quite ridiculous”.
“Another day, another attack on Territory rights by the Federal Coalition,” she said.
“What Senator Cash is trying to do is to change a decision that was legitimately made by the Legislative Assembly after a thorough Assembly process … [she] is really clutching at straws if she thinks this isn’t a massive interference with Territory rights because it absolutely is.”
ACT Labor Senator Katy Gallagher also expressed her concerns, stating this was a matter for the Territory Government.
“The ACT Assembly is a mature parliament democratically elected by ACT voters,” she said.
“I have spent my career in public life supporting the rights of Canberrans to determine the laws, policies and programs under which they are governed, and I will continue to do so despite the attempts by the Federal Opposition to try to undermine them.”
While Independent ACT Senator David Pocock also described the bill as an “attack” on Territory rights.
“It is hugely disappointing to see interstate senators continuing to try and interfere with the ACT’s democratically elected government,” he said.
“If they would like to see changes in the ACT’s laws, I would encourage them to run for the Legislative Assembly at next year’s election.”
Canberra Liberals leader Elizabeth Lee said while her party didn’t support the drug decriminalisation, she also didn’t condone the Federal Government trying to get involved.
She has already written to her Federal counterparts about her concerns with Ms Cash’s bill.
“I would always be very concerned about any steps to diminish [Territory rights],” she said.
“When these [drug decriminalisation] laws were introduced, we opposed them … [but this bill] is of concern to me because I strongly believe in Territory rights, and of all Canberrans to have the same equal, democratic rights as everybody else in Australia.
“I do not agree with this action taken by the Federal Coalition to seek to overturn legislation that was passed by the ACT Assembly.”
It comes just days after the Canberra Liberals attempted to force the current government to campaign on its policy of drug decriminalisation at the election rather than go ahead with the change next month.
The manoeuvres come in the wake of a recording of Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith that seemed to suggest the Labor Party had come up with an alternative way to have its drug decriminalisation policy moved through the legislative processes faster – namely, introducing it as private member’s business rather than a regular government bill.
Canberra Liberals deputy leader Jeremy Hanson moved a motion in the Legislative Assembly to pause the policy’s implementation until December 2024.
“If you intend to bring something to this parliament, you should have the courage to go to the election and talk about it,” he said.
He accused the government of hiding its stance on drug decriminalisation before the 2020 election, stating that this meant people couldn’t know what they were voting for at the time.
“We were fooled just as the rest of the community was. We had a debate about the government doing an investigation, but all along you were going to cook up a bill to decriminalise heroin and meth,” Mr Hanson said.
“You did not reveal that once in that debate, not once in the campaign.
“If you’re so confident about this reform … let’s have that debate in the election. Come on. Let’s do it. I dare you.”
Mr Hanson’s motion failed to pass the Legislative Assembly.
The Canberra Liberals have confirmed they would repeal the law if they were to gain power at the next election.